With this year’s Mountain Dew Store Wars contest just around the corner, we sat down with Nic Powley, owner of last year’s winning store Skate Pharmacy and stalwart of the UK skateboard scene, to chat about winning, going viral and the ins and outs of running a bricks and mortar skate store in 2016.
When did Skate Pharmacy first open and what was the original impetus for you to start the store? You’ve been involved in many aspects of the UK skate scene for decades but bricks & mortar retail was something you hadn’t ventured into before, right?
We’ve been open for two years now and to be honest, it was pretty much a spur of the moment idea to open the shop. I was sharing offices with two other businesses that had both moved out simultaneously, so I took it as some kind of sign and almost overnight Skate Pharmacy was born. I have done almost every possible job in the industry already as you say: Team Manager, Brand Rep, Marketing, Distribution, Events etc – everything except the obvious one of working in a skateshop. Like I’ve said many times though, it was never in my ‘life goals’ to own a skateshop but I knew I wanted to do something for myself rather than keep working for other brands as it gets frustrating being told what to do by people with years less experience than you that have mostly never even stood on a skateboard.
What’s your take on the cultural importance of bricks and mortar skate stores as someone who’s lived through numerous eras in skateboarding?
Where do I begin with that one? I could write a book on it. You know as well as I do that the towns/cities that have a rad shop always have a solid scene and help produce some of the best skaters. They’re the foundations of what skateboarding is, a place to hang, learn about skateboarding history and culture as well as somewhere to get bad advice on relationships, education, music, films, art, travel and just about everything else from. They are where you become a skateboarder, but they also shape you as a person probably way more than anyone realises. You don’t pick up a nickname that’s going to last a lifetime by sitting in your room watching Street League that’s for sure! I never grew up with a local shop really, I spent a lot of time in Slam when I was skating Southbank around ’88-’90 and that’s when I first realised I was missing out, we never had a ‘scene’ as such, having a ‘local’ where you know people and people know you is an amazing thing that most people probably only properly appreciate it when it’s gone.
On the other hand – you probably know the reality of owning and running a shop is far removed from the: “No way! I get to watch skate videos all day and get paid…” assumption too, right?
Oh yeah, I’ve never worked as hard in my life, or been as stressed, tired and at points generally miserable! Some times I’ll go for days where I feel I’m completely disconnected from skating, just sat in my office dealing with banking, accountants, paperwork; basically all the stuff I’ve spent my adult life trying to avoid like the plague. I hate those days!
I think I speak for all skateshop owners when I point a finger at the ‘takers’ here – those dudes who turn up for every video screening, every free beer, every free anything but don’t actually really buy anything in your shop. Then when you see them in town they’re head to toe in gear they bought elsewhere, even more insulting when it’s the exact stuff you have in stock but you know they found it £1 cheaper elsewhere. You can’t say a thing because then you’re the bad guy, but those guys are the scourge of local skateshops and they need to take a good hard look at themselves as human beings!
In reality though, I actually watch more skate videos now than I have done in the past ten years but that’s generally just premieres or some wet Saturdays when all the lurkers are in, not a day-to-day occurrence.
So the original Store Wars came around at an early point in the life of the shop – you already had a banging team so I guess it presented a good opportunity to get them out there to the rabid Social Media masses, right?
Yeah it was definitely good timing for us. We were stoked to be included as we were far from established at that point but I guess the team must have helped with that. With all these things we just see them as free publicity and if it’s free I’ll take it! Anything that gives us a chance to shout, “We’re here!” is good news.
Knowing you, you probably started scheming as soon as you heard about it – did you go into it with a strategy or anything?
I’m not very competitive but I’m probably a bit of a perfectionist so if we get involved in things like Store Wars then I always want to give it our all, rather than just do something half-assed for the sake of it. Biscuits, (Dan) Cates and I spent a lot of time chatting through ideas. The skurfing clip was our most viewed but that was something I’d been eyeing up for ages and just wanted to do for a laugh, Store Wars just gave us the impetus to get on with it. There was no overall strategy, but we did think carefully about which clips we used.
Going into it, it was fairly obvious that just filming skateboarding probably wasn’t going to mean that you’d get through to the second round since the whole thing was based on getting traction on Facebook, which in turn means appealing to a wider audience than just skaters – did you start out with that in mind, or did it just kind of happen?
Oh mate you know we had spreadsheets and pie charts working out all the demographics and stuff (laughing). No, that stuff is social media basics lesson 1.1, if you can’t work that out you’re less ‘on it’ than my 72-year-old dad! Every skateshop has a load of skaters to like their clips so if it were just down to that then the bigger, more popular shops would always win. Insta/Facebook clips are the new video sections but it’s also changed skateboarding a lot, it’s the gimmicky, quirky, freakshow stuff that gets shared – simple as that.
How did you arrange getting the 2015 clips together when a lot of your riders don’t really live in close proximity to the shop?
We were one of the last weeks of the 2015 contest so that gave us time to get people involved for the clips, but it went against us to get the final edit done for Round 2. Plus that time of year everyone has commitments: Biscuits was sitting on that idea for a bike ride edit and we managed to get enough of a crew together to make it happen. It was actually really mellow because the focus wasn’t ‘hammers’ as such, they all just went out skating for the day and filmed it really, just how it should be.
Which of your 2015 clips was your personal favourite?
The Skurfing one was the one I was most involved with mainly just because I’m the only one insured to drive the van. I worked it all out, built the rig with the surfboard attached to the trucks and then went to the beach with Dan and filmed it. I was wetting myself the whole time, plus there was the added bonus of the fact there was a good chance Dan was going to actually end up getting swept out to sea, which would have also produced a winning clip (laughing). All the challenge stuff that Kris Vile did was basically above and beyond what was required and as usual it showed how amazing he is at skateboarding: back to back NBD’s within a few tries just for a laugh, better than some people’s video sections. I guess the final edit that we submitted for Round 2 is my favourite overall because it has more skating in it and shows off our local area and spots, plus it was really fun to do, it’s a good representation of the shop and team, rather than just a gimmick to get views.
Were there any ideas for clips that you really wanted to do, but never got around to doing? Or are you saving those…
I can’t think of anything, we had a load of stuff we didn’t end up using for the Round 1 clips but we’d filmed way more than we needed anyway.
Which other shop’s clips did you enjoy watching and why?
Anything with Doug (McLaughlan) in cracked me up: when you know him, you know he’s just the funniest dude about and trying to film the clips with him in must have been hilarious. I cried at the 50:50 one with the customer chucking the shoes about too. Dale’s snowboarding clip for Welcome was inspired too, like the perfect type of clip for the comp. I liked The House’s stuff last year too, it showed their personality off and that they have a rad sense of humour – their edits really represented what and who they are, rather than just trying to win. There were loads of good clips to be honest, skateboarders are idiots, so making funny 15 video clips is a walk in the park for them!
How much personal involvement did you have in the 2015 Store Wars clips? Were you hands on from the start, or did you leave it mainly with Ben ‘Biscuits’ Wilks (Skate Pharmacy filmer) and the team riders to get on with?
Well my priority is running the shop these days and it’s way too easy to get caught up in the mucking about because it’s more fun, but some days I really have to put my adult head on and leave those guys to go off and do it. So we’d all come up with the ideas then mostly Biscuits would go out with whoever he needed to get it done. He’d Whatsapp me with clips he wasn’t sure about and I’d just direct from afar, “get him to do it switch and stop being lazy” or something else really positive and insightful but yeah, props to Ben, he’s the driving force behind most our media output, my involvement often stops at the idea stage and I don’t get involved again until I critique the finished item. He really handles the ‘Team Manager’ role and he’s good at it too, I’m so consumed with the ‘business’ stuff I can’t do everything.
So once Skate Pharmacy had got through Round 1 last year you had a pretty clear plan of what your Round 2 ‘full edit’ was going to look like and it tied in with the rapid redevelopment of Margate that was happening at the same time. Was this something that kind of happened, or was it intentional and planned from your end?
Margate is going off, every day something new is opening or some event is happening, there’s a lot of energy out on the streets! The new breed of Margate folk (including myself and Cates) are so stoked on the place that we just wanted to show people how rad it is to live here. Like I said earlier, we’d been sat on that idea for ages so we just put it into action.
Basing your Round 2 clip locally meant that loads of other local businesses in the Margate/Thanet area shared it and hyped it up too, right? That must’ve helped.
Oh yeah all the local businesses shared it: people were genuinely stoked to see ‘young people’ doing something so positive and active and to be seen to be promoting the area at the same time. Even when we were out filming because we had a big crew we attracted a lot of attention but people were so into what we were doing. I know skaters still get hassled a lot but skateboarding is generally viewed as something a lot more positive than it was when I started.
Have you got another master plan for this year if you get through into Round 2?
We’ve already started chatting through some ideas but no master plan as yet. I think it will be a lot tougher this year though, people know what to do now and they’ve seen what works. I had a bit of a jump on some people last year as a veteran of several Big Push campaigns and similar things from my time at Vans.
You said in the local press interview (Thanet Gazette) after winning Store Wars last year that winning genuinely had a measurable/positive effect for the store – in what way?
Our shop is weird in that it’s obviously pretty well known nationally and even internationally, but almost every day (still) we get someone through the door who lives right round the corner and didn’t know we were here. That cycling edit got seen by a lot of those types of people and some of them then came into the shop. Also there’s a weird local mentality generally of people thinking that anything and everything round here is crap, I think its a hang up from it being pretty poor and deprived in the 80’s/90’s like most British seaside towns. Some guy literally walked in here once and said, “I’ve been meaning to come here for a while but I thought it would be rubbish!” That’s what we’re dealing with here! So to win something on a national level does make people with that mentality realize that we’re not some clueless idiots that don’t know what we’re doing.
Knowing you, you’ll obviously have been stoked to win Store Wars primarily for the shop and the local scene, but you probably enjoyed it from the perspective of being a new shop and being based in an area not necessarily considered ‘cool’. Am I right?
Yeah of course we were stoked to have won, overjoyed even. When you open a shop you have to contact brands and other people and they fall into two categories – 1) We’re down, we’re backing you, all the best. 2) We’ll give it 2 years and see if you fail and wait till someone who knows what they’re on about tells us you’re cool enough to deal with and sell our brand or whatever. There’s nothing better than feeling like you’re sticking your metaphorical middle finger up at those number 2’s now and again. A lot of the iconic skateshops have been around 20+ years and I have nothing but respect for all of them but if you think my shop isn’t as good because it’s only been around two years or because we’re in Margate or for whatever nonsense reason then, basically, screw you.
What did you do with the prize money if that’s not too rude of a question?
Paid the costs of doing it all, bought everyone Fish and Chips and then paid some bills! Normally for something like Shop Riot we’d just split the money between the riders but there were just so many involved with Store wars and everyone put in different amounts of effort so it would have been hard to do it fairly anyway. I was hoping to use the money for a team trip or something, but it didn’t work out. This year we’re doing a little tour at the end of August so should we somehow fluke winning again this year it will help pay for that.
Did you get any grief from any quarters after winning? We all know how much skateboarders like whining after all…
Well nobody said anything to my face obviously, but isn’t that always the case! Maybe someone had a grumble but all we did was work hard to produce our clips, and then work hard to get them shared. If we’re doing something like this then we’re going to concentrate on doing it well – if that bothers people it’s probably because they know they should/could have put more effort in. There are always going to be winners and losers in things like this, if you can’t take losing maybe don’t play at all. I don’t mind whether we win or lose anything as long as we put in the effort, I beat myself up mentally for weeks when stuff goes out that I’m not happy with. In this instance we won but even if we hadn’t, we would have still massively benefitted from the exposure of the clips, getting the local kids stoked, etc so everyone who was involved should have got something out of it.
Why are events like Store Wars important to skateboard retailers like yourself?
For us, it really helped establish the store, along with winning Shop Riot and other things we were up to at the time, it definitely got the name out there and got us some industry respect points. Anything that generates online content is a valuable commodity these days, it’s basically free advertising. These are tough times for skate shops so things like Store Wars could genuinely be helping some people stay in business.
So we’re a week or so from the beginning the second Store Wars, with a slightly altered format and more shops – are you still going to go in for the kill, or are you under less pressure this time as defending winners?
There’s no pressure at all, there never was, it’s a laugh and an opportunity to do something positive to showcase our shop and team. Obviously we’ll be giving it 100% as usual, but if you think we’ll be chucking a sulk if we don’t even get through the first round, then you’ll be sadly mistaken. May the best clips win!
Have you got any secret weapons that we ought to look out for?
I keep my secret weapons secret otherwise they’re just weapons.
Aside from yourselves – which shops do you expect to ramp it up this year and go in hard?
I reckon anyone that wasn’t involved last year is going to go at it hard. Plus the guys that made it to the final last year will do too as they obviously know what they’re doing.
Anything else you’d like to add Nic?
Just thanks to you guys at Sidewalk and everyone Mountain Dew for running this event and thanks for including us again obviously. Best of luck to all the stores involved and I look forward to my morning toilet time being brightened up by cracking up laughing at all the clips.
Also, if anyone’s got any winning ideas, please get in touch, I’ll pay you!